I have been playing the shit out of the new Better Off album “Milk” for the last few weeks. There is this deliciously messy image of a multi-layered PB&J on the cover that has been triggering some fierce feels for me lately and I finally put my finger on it the other day.
It reminds me of my old hair stylist, Gwen.
In the fall of 2001, my friend / co-worker Carol arranged for me to visit her stylist Gwen after I endured the worst dye job ever at J.C. Penney’s. My hair was tiger-striped and I had to wear a hat.
I do not rock the hat look well, you guys.
I liked Gwen immediately. For the first time in my life, I felt comfortable enough in the swivel chair to engage in non-stop conversation with a stylist. Typically, I would just stare off into space and pray that I wouldn’t be spoken to. I walked out of the salon that night with haute highlights and a new regular stylist.
Full disclosure though, Gwen was far from perfect. She had abhorrent time-management skills; it would take her upwards of four hours to complete my cut and color because she was always running off to call her mom or have a smoke or flat out forgetting what she was doing. One time she even left me sitting there idly while she ran across the street to get a cappuccino.
It would anger me so badly that I would always consider walking out. But then she would come back and apologize profusely and we would start bullshitting and she would tell me I was funny and all would be forgotten. An abusive relationship if anything.
About a year later, she lost her job at the salon. She was accused of stealing. But she didn’t do it, honestly, you guys! I only half believed her. She gave me her home phone number and from then on, I would get my hair managed in her garage. She lived in a nice house in the suburbs near my old turf. She had a handsome husband who worked for the FBI and two beautiful daughters who I would eat three-layered peanut butter and jelly sandwiches with at their kitchen counter while waiting for the dye to set. Gwen made sensational PB&Js. So good that I became spoiled and when Henry would attempt to make me one, it would get tossed back at his face.
(That may have also had something to do with that pesky bi-polar thingaling too, though.)
Every other month, I’d arrive at her house for my appointment. If I was lucky, she would remember and actually be home to open the door for me. Other times, her husband would come to the door and tell me he didn’t know where she was, but I was welcome to wait. Sometimes, no one would be there at all and I would sit on the front steps like a lost puppy with mange.
After some time, her appearance began to change. The skin on her legs were marred with red bumps and scabs and her hair consistently looked unwashed. She would tell me stories of her new friends that were prostitutes. Legit prostitutes! I was horrified but at the same time loved hearing stories of how she picked up these mythological creatures and drove them to “appointments.” How does a suburban housewife get such a gig, I wondered. I don’t think Craigslist was around then.
Sometimes, Gwen would forget to have the dye ready and I would have to drive her to the beauty supply store five minutes away. Seems like a hassle, but for gas money and a candy bar, there’s little I won’t do.
Despite her erratic behavior, my hair still came out shining.
Gwen was more than just my hair stylist, though. She had become my sounding board. I would cry to her about my nightmare job at Weiss Meats, and she understood because she knew the people there. Gwen was someone who I might not have been able to rely on in terms of being on time to do my hair, but I could tell her anything and feel comfortable doing so. I could talk candidly about Henry and she was one of the few people who never made me feel weird or self-conscious about our age difference, which seemed way more extreme when I was 23 and Henry was 37.
She became sort of a running joke with my friends. “How long did Gwen leave you sitting on her front porch this time?” they’d ask. No matter how angry she would make me, she would always do something to make up for it, like only charging me half price or plying me with chocolate, and I would leave her house smiling.
My then-friend Keri’s wedding was coming up and I was desperate for hair therapy. Gwen eventually called me from her mother’s house; her husband had kicked her out, but if we made the appointment while he was at work, she said, we could sneak into her house. It was like renegade hair styling with her, you guys. A true, ridiculous adventure every time. She gave me highlights the week before the wedding, and then scheduled me to come back the morning of the wedding so she could style it. When I told Keri, she panicked. “Oh my God, she’s going to make you late! Do I have to remind you that you’re my bridesmaid?” But Gwen pulled through with plenty of time to spare. It made me think that she was turning over a new leaf. Maybe she bought a watch?
And then I never heard from her again. I’d call her, but her voice mail was perpetually full. The last I heard, she had been picked up in a park for prostitution and was even heavier into drugs. It made me realize that you could have the nicest house in a suburb called Pleasant Hills, for Christ’s sake, and still succumb to a stereotypical life led by someone living in a tenement.
I quit calling her and found a new stylist, one who worked within walking distance of my house and never, and I mean never, left me waiting. I eventually just stopped wondering about Gwen altogether.
One August morning in 2006, Carol informed me that in the beginning of July, Gwen had OD’d. She was 41.
I realized then that I didn’t have any photos of Gwen. I wrote in my journal that I was afraid I was going to forget her. Yet here I am, nine years later, listening to Better Off, eating a three-layered PB&J that Henry made me per request, and thinking of the whirlwind in my life that was Gwen.
Henry’s PB&J still doesn’t have the same magical effect as Gwen’s crustless creations had, but it made me feel some kind of comfort.